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Friday, September 20, 2013

Helene Hanff: Q's Legacy

The Moonboat Café - a Place to Dream
source: the blog of Cassandra Frear
no copyright infringement intended

(click here for the Romanian version)

It all began in the 1930's. Helene Hanff was by then a teenager living in Philadelphia with her parents. Times were difficult and Helene could not afford going to college. The costs would have been overwhelming. She decided to continue her instruction alone, as she was interested in English literature, dreaming to become one day a writer herself.

She went to the public library to find a good manual or something, and she started to browse the authors in alphabetical order. Each time she was seeing some book in the domain, she was opening it, to be immediately disappointed: the book seemed too pretentious, the language seemed somehow artificial. Helene was about to give up, when she discovered in the Q section a book she fell immediately for. The book was On the Art of Writing, and the author was Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, a professor of English Literature at Cambridge University. While the author's name was totally unknown for Helene, the book seemed very clear and effective. She borrowed the book, after short time she decided to buy it, then all other books containing Quiller-Couch's lectures. She found out soon that Sir Arthur used a single letter as pen name: Q. What she didn't yet know was that all that was going to follow in her life would unravel under the mantle of Q's legacy.

Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch
published by W. Heinemann, 1903
no copyright infringement intended

So Helene began studying the book of Q, to realize very soon that it was necessary to extend her interests toward the authors referenced by the English professor. Like any good manual, the book of Q was a road opener: Chaucer, Shakespeare, John Donne, Milton, John Dryden, the great roads of British literature. And, as she was advancing, Helene was discovering other and other books she needed: the Lives of Izaak Walton, the Diary of Samuel Pepys, the Imaginary Conversations of Walter Savage Landor, Cardinal Newman's Idea of a University, the essays of Leigh Hunt, Stevenson, Hazlitt... And of course the Elizabethan and Jacobean poets, Ben Jonson and all the others.

Around 1940 Helene Hanff moved to New York and became a writer, and for the following thirty years success was for her a Fata Morgana. She wrote plays (admired by some of Broadway's leading producers but which somehow never saw the light of day - wiki), history booklets for children (with so and so luck in publishing), TV scripts (till the TV producers moved to Hollywood), stories for various magazines, that kind of stuff. And meanwhile she was studying her beloved authors, living more and more intimately in the universe of British literature and dreaming more and more at London. A dream nurtured by the books she loved, and by the movies she was watching to immerse her eyes within the images of London streets and buildings. A dream impossible to fulfill for someone fighting each month to make ends meet.

By 1949 Helene found the address of an antiquarian in London selling the books of interest for her at a very reasonable price, and an intense correspondence followed between her and Frank Doel, the bookseller from London. A correspondence lasting twenty years. A very special friendship between two people with opposite temperaments, while sharing the same love for the same kind of books.

Frank Doel with his wife Nora, and daughters Mary and Sheila
photo made in early 1960's
no copyright infringement intended

They never met, and Frank Doel died unexpectedly in 1968. Helene Hanff made a book of their correspondence: 84 Charing Cross Road. A book that suddenly brought her fame. The success was immense, and it became kind of a cult book, with unconditional fans all over the place.Very soon the book was reprinted by a British publishing house, and Helene was then able to fulfill her dream of coming to London. For her, the British capital was the heart of her literary universe, and she found it there that heart. Helene kept a diary on her London trip, that became her next book, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street. I didn't have the chance to read it, but I have read 84 Charing Cross Road: it's charming, it's fresh, it's smart, it's elegantly balanced, it's classic and it's modern, altogether.

And so the beginning of the 1970's brought Helene Hanff the long deserved literary success, that continued in the 1980's. 84 was made a television play, then a stage play, then in 1987 a movie (that I watched right now - it was aired today at TV). And she came back to London many times.

Izaak Walton's house and shop at 120 Chancery Lane
(where he lived 1627-1644)
source: George Walter Thornbury, Old and New London, 1872
no copyright infringement intended

In 1985 Helene Hanff wrote Q's Legacy, a memoir telling all her life. I read it very recently. I think the multitude of details makes it a difficult reading, if you haven't previously read 84 Charing Cross Road (and even this is not enough: if you haven't been to London, and more, if you are not familiar with the English literature). But, if you succeed to read Q's Legacy once, then you'll come back to it often, to browse the pages and to read at random, and it will be a fabulous lecture.

And now, that I read it once, I can say that Helene lived her entire life under a charm. She had bad times and she had good times, but everything was like in a dream. There was a unique real thing, the first book of Q she found sometime in the thirties at the public library in Philadelphia. Here is what she said in the last page of her memoir:

If I live to be very old, all my memories of the glory days will grow vague and confused, till I won't be certain any of it really happened. But the books will be there, on the shelves and in my head - the one enduring reality I can be certain of till the day I die. Of all the gifts in Q's legacy, the first still mattered most and would matter longest.

Helene Hanff passed away in 1997.

(Helene Hanff)



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